Knowing the Bible

Spiritual growth objective: Learn the structure and content of the Bible as a unified grand narrative and learn to interpret the Bible with the right questions.


Introduction to the Bible

Importance of knowing the Bible

Spiritual growth requires the renewal of our mind so that we can know the true God and discern his will (Romans 12:2).  Therefore, the Bible is an essential foundation of Christian spiritual growth.  The Bible (or Holy Scripture) is the written word of God and provides God’s inspired account of his identity, his purposes, and his work in creating and redeeming the world through Christ and the Holy Spirit.  Through the Bible, God also shows us what it means to be a human being and how we can know him and fulfill our purpose in loving him and participating in his mission in the world.  Since we are inclined to see ourselves and the world in distorted ways due to the curse of sin, the theologian John Calvin rightly describes the Bible as a set of “glasses” that correct our vision and enable us to see God and ourselves more clearly.  Therefore, knowing the Scriptures is vital “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” in order that we may be “complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Challenge of knowing the Bible

One major challenge in knowing the Bible is its size and its diversity.  It is not just a single book; rather, it is a library of books of many types of literature composed by many different authors over the course of many centuries.  Yet, these many books of the Bible combine in a coherent way to tell a single, unified story.  This single, grand narrative is a story about God the Father working to create, save, and glorify the world through his Son Jesus by his Holy Spirit.

In other words, the Bible is one big story composed of many smaller stories, and thus we need to know the Bible at both levels.  We need to know the details of the smaller stories, because this is part of the glory of God’s work: he works through very particular people in particular times, places, and cultures.  But the details will not make sense unless we see how they fit together in a unified pattern to form the one, big story that integrates all of the smaller ones. 

Study and learn the Bible

Overview of the Bible

Where to begin?  There are two important starting points for knowing the Bible.  First, get the big picture of the big story.

Here are some resources for learning an overview of the grand narrative of the Bible:

(1) These short videos from The Bible Project provide a quick summary.

What Is the Bible? (5 min.)

The Story of the Bible (5 min.)

Overview of the Old Testament (12 min.)

Overview of the New Testament (8 min.)

(2) Vaughn Roberts, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible

Nine short videos (about 10 min. each) from his book by the same title.  You can download an outline of each talk, if that would help you.  You don’t need to read the book in order to benefit from the videos.

(3) Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, 2nd ed. (Baker, 2014).
This is one of the very best introductions to the content of the Bible.

Reading the Bible

Once you have acquired a basic overview, you are ready to read through the individual books of the Bible in greater depth. 

Here are some resources to guide you as you read the Bible:

(1)  As you read through the Bible, read the following essays in the ESV Study Bible to gain an overview of each major section before reading the individual books.

 ESV Study Bible essay
Before GenesisIntroduction to the Pentateuch
Before JoshuaIntroduction to the Historical Books
Before JobIntroduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Literature
Before IsaiahIntroduction to the Prophetic Books
Before MatthewReading the Gospels and Acts
Before RomansReading the Epistles

(2)  Before reading each Bible book, watch the short video on that book from the Bible Project series.

Old Testament books

New Testament books

(3)  As you read passages in the Bible, consult the study notes in the ESV Study Bible for extra help with questions about specific texts.  Consult a reference work like the Zondervan Handbook to the Bible or the New Bible Dictionary (see below) for further help with books of the Bible as well as unfamiliar people, places, events, and ideas.

If you would like to read through the Bible, here are some reading plans to help you organize a schedule to keep track of your progress:

Bible reading plans

Interpreting the Bible

The second starting point for learning the Bible is knowing good questions to ask.  There are three basic types of questions to ask when reading the Bible:

(1) Literary questions

  • Grammar: What do the words and grammar mean?
  • Genre: What kind of text is it, e.g., narrative, song, law, letter, prophecy, etc.?
  • Literary context: How does surrounding text (sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books) help understand a given statement?

(2) Historical questions

  • Date: When was it written?
  • Author: Who wrote it?
  • Historical setting: What was happening in the time period discussed in the text?

(3) Theological questions

  • God: What does this text teach about God and about relating to God?
  • Humanity: What does this text teach about people and about relating to people?
  • Christ: How does this text lead us to Christ by showing us our need for salvation in Christ or showing a pattern of God’s work that is ultimately fulfilled in Christ?
  • Ethics: What does this text teach me to desire or to do?

For a great introductory resource on learning how to interpret and apply the Bible, see Matthew Harmon, Asking the Right Questions: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible (Crossway, 2017).

Reference works for digging deeper

The following resources will help you understand the meaning of the Bible and understand its key terms, literary forms, historical background, and theological message.

ESV Study Bible
In addition to the text of the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible, this work offers helpful essays on the sections of the Bible, short introductions to each book of the Bible, and study notes at the bottom of each page that explain the literary, historical, and theological aspects of each passage in the Bible as well as maps, illustrations, charts, and timelines that make the Bible come alive.  If you only purchase one reference book to help you understand the Bible, this is the one to get.

Zondervan Handbook to the Bible
New Bible Dictionary
These two reference works provide short articles explaining the literary, historical, cultural background of the books of the Bible along with key words, people, places, objects, and events.   Many pictures, maps, and diagrams help illustrate biblical concepts.  The dictionary is organized alphabetically by topic, and the handbook is organized by the order of the books in the Bible.

Action steps

(1)  Watch the videos above and read The Drama of Scripture by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen.

(2)  If you have not read through the Bible (or have not done so in a long time) and you don’t have a reading plan, consider the suggested plans and make a commitment to some strategy to read through the Bible, using the ESV Study Bible and the videos from the Bible Project as a help in your reading.